On Tuesday, the Lok Sabha passed the Constitution (one hundred and twenty-fourth amendment) Bill, 2019, following the Union Cabinet’s decision to provide a 10% quota in government jobs and higher education institutions to the economically weaker sections (EWS) in the general category, that is, the upper castes in India. While the bill has been accused of being a gimmick for the upcoming general elections making its timing suspect, and its legal validity is yet to be established, for Narendra Modi, the decision is yet another example of his famed disruptive politics.
There are several consequences of this latest iteration of prime ministerial disruption. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s political opponents have been put on the backfoot. Modi’s “masterstroke” is a populist move, irrespective of its legal validity in future and is being hailed as a pathbreaking reformist step towards the creation of a casteless society. Most political parties have avoided publicly disapproving of this step for the fear of alienating the savarna vote. The constitutional amendment to grant reservation to EWS in the upper castes passed with 323 votes from the 326 members who were present in the lower house.
Narendra Modi’s political persona has long been moulded as an outsider’, the one who challenges the status quo that has for long benefitted a specific cohort of elites. It aligns with British political theorist Roger Griffin’s “palingenetic myth” that leaders often use to attract key constituencies towards themselves. The palingenetic myth could refer to the redemption of a golden age or the destruction of the old inefficient order for a new one. In his book, The Nature of Fascism, Griffin argued, ‘… there will be one great leader who battles the representatives of the old system with grassroots support. An elite consciously sets out to realize a ‘monistic’, totalitarian world-view through social engineering … to overcome the perceived failure, injustice, or decadence of a modern pluralistic society … can count on a significant degree of popular support and consensus thanks to the mass-mobilizing power of its vision of the new order”.
The last five years of Narendra Modi’s prime ministership offer multiple examples of the disruptive politics that have come to define Modi’s style, which has immense mass appeal and makes the opposition look perplexed in its approach towards it. Changing and modifying the Nehruvian Planning Commission to the Niti Aayog in the early days of the current administration; the grand midnight launch of the Goods and Services Tax, India’s biggest tax reform since independence, at the Parliament Central Hall in June 2017; brand management of initiatives such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan which is touted to be India’s first and the world’s biggest sanitation programme; the brouhaha over the installation of the Sardar Patel statue in Gujarat — the mobilisation of resources over these initiatives and the effects it has had on the electorate are a crucial political characteristic of Narendra Modi.
Modi’s political enigma depends upon his ability to continuously strike and propound his novelty and dissimilarities from the corruption and decadence of the past. His initiatives are, therefore, carefully crafted, mass-appealing acts of political and social engineering that uphold his image of a strong-willed, risk-taking leader, while satisfying his key electorate with ideas of change and reform, so far been unknown under previous administrations.
The surgical strikes on Pakistan in September 2016 and demonetisation in November 2016 further explain this phenomenon. The surgical strikes are perhaps the single biggest example of Modi’s carefully crafted world of “New India” and its effects on the majority of Indians. The opposition failed to counter the Modi government’s propaganda blitzkrieg post the strikes, and all attempts at diluting the gravity of the strikes meant politically alienating citizens on questions of nationalism, national security and the integrity of the armed forces.
Irrespective of its negative consequences on the economy, the government controlled the narrative over demonetisation as a strike against the rich, the corrupt, and the crony elites and beneficiaries of the former system. Despite its ill-effects, the BJP won elections in major states like Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Gujarat post demonetisation. While Rahul Gandhi continues to harangue the public over demonetisation in election rallies across the country, the prime minister has used it to solidify his image as an anti-graft crusader. As recently as the Madhya Pradesh elections in November-December 2018, Modi hit out at the Congress claiming, “Congress and the family alone were weeping over notes ban even after two years as deposits of their four generations were gone.”
For political parties and scholars to question the proposed legislation of 10% reservation for the EWS in the upper castes merely on the pretext of legal scrutiny and poll gimmick misses the woods for the trees. Narendra Modi, by all means, is a political animal who constantly keeps changing the rules of the game. His biggest asset is his ability to derive political durability from the masses and present himself as an outsider within the corridors of power in Delhi. The opposition would do well to set a narrative in its favour and make the BJP follow rather than allow Narendra Modi a field day in his game of choice.
Avishek Jha is a 2018 Young India Fellow, and is currently a Programme Fellow with Academe India.